Learning Both Left and Right

terry jones

whilst in bloomington, serving under the watchful eye of jugglemeister steven ragatz, one of the most important things he drilled into me - and anyone else fortunate enough to be the recipient of his opinions - was the extreme importance of learning everything with both hands. i don't question this, but i often wonder about the best way to do it.

there are plenty of choices that you can make. at one extreme, you learn the trick with one hand and then with the other. at the other end of the spectrum lies practicing both at the same time. if you do both at the same time, should you give each hand equal time or try to ensure that each hand develops at the same rate?

i used to aim for equal development. my right hand is far better than my left at practically everything. it tends to learn things perhaps 5 times as quickly. for me it's very boring to practice left handed 5 times as much as i do right handed. i get bored if i don't progress rapidly, or at least visibly over a short period.

the practice of learning with the right and then trying to learn with the left is satisfying if nothing else. until recently i would always feel a bit guilty about doing this, but now i feel there is often justification for it.

some tricks have a very distinctive feel or rhythm or pattern. or they take a lot of experimenting before you try the right combination of actions, frame of mind, posture etc and they begin to click. it takes time to do this - especially if you are working on something difficult alone. i think there is a reasonable argument to be made in favour of learning some tricks with one hand and then working on the other. once you have it one way, with the good hand, you can learn the bad hand and have it learn the correct technique from scratch. it seems important to pay close attention to what it actually is that you have learned and that you begin to consciously apply that knowledge to your bad hand as soon as you begin to get comfortable with your good one.

to me it seems like there is a double win here. for one, the time spent finding the right way to do the trick is reduced, as you are exploring with your more able hand, and secondly, your bad hand is taught (presumably) good habits, and thus learns faster than it would if it was part of the exploratory phase too.

of course the degree of separation is a personal thing. i never learn something completely with my right and then, once i have it, start on the left. i always at least make the occasional attempt with the left along the way.

two examples from the life of me. in learning 4 clubs (standard fountain), it took me a while to adopt to angling the clubs slightly outwards when throwing them. i had been told very early on to do this but it took a while before i was doing it reasonably unconsciously. at some point between the time when i catch the club and when i release it, i move the handle of the club so that the knob moves away from my thumb. it's a very slight adjustment and it has a very definite feel - both as something i do while the club is in my hand and also in the release. this is also accompanied by a distinctive outside-inside flowing movement of the hand.

i found that these feelings, which it took me some time to attend to, were something i was able to transfer to my left hand relatively easily. so much so that my left hand has probably been better trained for the particular task. once i thought a little about making my left hand feel like my right and learn the lessons of the right, i found i could suddenly regularly do 4 clubs for hundreds of throws.

a second example is from unicycling. riding one footed has a very distinctive feel to it - there is a definite rhythm, there is a good time to adjust the other foot (which i put on the frame), there is a very definite way to get into it (whether from idling or from riding) and so on. there are many lessons that can be learned in the process of learning this trick. i learned this with my right foot, and it took quite a while - several months before i could ride around comfortably, start and stop one one foot, turn sharply in both directions etc. occasionally i would try with my left foot, and never got a single revolution (that first one is probably the hardest). then one night i decided that i could probably do it left footed if i put my mind to it. i tried to exactly replicate the things i had learned with the other foot, and suddenly i was riding left footed. it was shaky, but i was actually riding.

progress with the right foot had taken months. reaching the point where i could go, say, five revolutions had taken weeks. but in one night all that experience allowed the left foot to go from almost nothing to almost everything.

of course nothing can ever be proved about which method is better, (faster, results in better technique) or for what tricks or for who. but it might be interesting to hear what others have to say and have experienced and do.

of course i am not advocating letting the bad hand/leg/etc fall far behind the good. in fact, i am not advocating anything at all. the question is, how best to learn things with both when you are stuck with one that is significantly worse than the other.

David Naylor

terry jones writes:

  the practice of learning with the right and then trying to learn with
  the left is satisfying if nothing else. until recently i would always
  feel a bit guilty about doing this, but now i feel there is often
  justification for it...

  some tricks have a very distinctive feel or rhythm or pattern. or they
  take a lot of experimenting before you try the right combination of
  actions, frame of mind, posture etc and they begin to click. it takes
  time to do this - especially if you are working on something difficult
  alone. i think there is a reasonable argument to be made in favour of
  learning some tricks with one hand and then working on the other.
Terry, you have discovered a well accepted principle of motor learning. It's called Transfer of Learning. Simply put it means that a motor skill is transferred from limb to limb even though only one limb has been actively involved in practise. Academics have found that there is even some transfer from to different limbs eg. you can write with your foot better because you already have the skill with one hand. There are tons of experiments in this area, and Transfer of Learning is a well established and accepted principle of motor learning. I discussed it briefly in a JW article a while back, but your examples are much better than mine.

  of course nothing can ever be proved about which method is better,
  (faster, results in better technique) or for what tricks or for who.
On the contrary, there is lots of evidence. I can point you to some scientific reports on Transfer of Learning if you are interested or sceptical.

Benjamin Schoenberg

This is an interesting topic, and one which is very important for anyone putting in a lot of time learning hard tricks. I think it's most useful to think about when learning even numbers in the fountain pattern (each hand independently juggling half the objects), where even a small shortcut may save many many hours.

I remember reading about a university study of learning with each hand (I'm pretty sure it was in Juggler's World) about a year ago. The researchers (who were not researching juggling in particular) reported that people's weak hands improved even when they weren't being exercised. In other words, it is often sufficient to get good at a trick with your strong hand, and let your brain translate it for your weak hand!

In practice, I'd say that I agree with this, but of course some practice is necessary to get that off hand going smoothly. For example, I find that when I first start attempting a large even number of objects a comfortable progression would be:

practice right hand only
practice both hands on sync
practice left hand only
practice both hands off sync
I definitely find it easier to attempt things on sync, which I can sometimes get going even when my left isn't strong enough to do it off sync.

So go ahead, be lazy, get good at a trick with your strong side first!

terry jones, again

Replying to David Naylor's comments (above), wrt Transfer of Learning and a JW article. I did read the article when it appeared. I'm not questioning the existence of transfer of learning. The question is, if you proceed by learning both at once will you get to the point where both can do it proficiently faster or slower than if you learn it with the good and then try to transfer it to the bad? The question is one of speed rather than whether there is a transfer.

I am sure there is a large amount of evidence for transfer of learning, but that is not in question.

The trouble with trying to *prove* (as opposed to accumulate evidence) an answer to the speed question is that one can only learn something once - you can't learn it one way and then see if learning it the other way is faster. This sort of experiment can never have a truly reliable control.

This doesn't mean that what others report isn't interesting or that the accumulated evidence shouldn't be taken as the closest thing to a proof there could be, and acted upon. What I was saying is that although you can't formally prove anything, the body of evidence is probably a pretty good indicator of how to learn quickly. Of course one could counter that it just boils down to the particular individual and the particular trick (not to mention a million other variables). That may well be, but I am interested in the generalizations about learning speed vs learning method that can be drawn from our collective experience. Something like that.

Perhaps you might phrase it as: To what extent should one rely on transfer of learning to speed the learning of both hands? The conclusion that might arise is that one should rely more heavily on it (as opposed to learning both hands simultaneously from scratch) when it is known beforehand that the trick has some quite distinctive feel or rhythm etc that one needs to "get" before it can be done. Perhaps this could be phrased as the almost tautological: Rely on transfer of learning more than learning both from scratch when there are manifest things that can be transferred. Sounds a bit boring, but, assuming the previous to be right, what kinds of tricks have significantly more that can be transferred in this way? I feel it's the ones that have some particular aspects about them that one can consciously recognize. If this is so, it would be nice to have an idea of how best others have found learning a particular trick. For instance, that a lot of people find learning to ride a uni one footed with either foot is best done by transfer of learning.

Steven Ragatz

Good post Terry... Mr. Jones has a point worth taking.

It is up to each individual to find what works best for them. Terry argues that he finds learning a trick with the strong hand first makes learning the trick with the weak hand easier. He feels that because he can compare the weak hand to the strong hand, he is able to transfer the strong hand's learned skills to the weaker hand. The subsequent posts seem to support this notion with bio-mechanic research and other experience. Although it is a very important aspect to our work, I do not think that it is the largest stumbling block in the learning process.

If one was able to disconnect the mind from the body, juggling would become trivial. The body knows all. Yet the brain insists on confusing things. Analysis is something that is imposed on this otherwise natural act. Throwing and catching are inherent to the bio-mechanic structure of the human body. The neuron paths exists for throwing a ball ten feet in the air and catching it with the other hand. The hands can move very rapidly - far faster than a seven ball cascade requires. Then why can't everyone juggle seven balls?

When practicing juggling, one is reinforcing the development of neuron paths associated with a given trick. Repetition strengthens these paths and subsequently one "learns" a new skill. There are many factors that contribute to this system. Body agility, strength and stamina as well as natural ability to acquire certain types of skills influence the learning process greatly. Most of us are well aware of these elements. But there are aspects that tend to be overlooked.

Instinctive reactions occur without conscience thought. Blocking an errant throw or dodging a honking car require reaction times that exceed the speed of analysis. The key to juggling is to teach the body new instincts. (Actually I feel that these juggling instincts already exists, but unfortunately, most of us have to dig a long way to get in contact with them. Somewhere down the road of socialization, we loose contact with these instincts.)

The barrier that blocks the instinctive movement is due to "analysis paralysis". The mind interferes. Only through repetitive practice does one begin to break down this barrier. This is no simple task, for this interference occurs on different levels.

The process of learning a given trick can be roughly broken down from a macro level to a micro level. The process can be looked at in terms of months, then days, then hours and minutes, then individual attempts and finally individual throws. Each one of these levels offers certain obstacles that must be overcome. Equally these obstacles are unique to each level. It is these obstacles that make learning juggling difficult.

It is important to view the learning process with these differing levels. The ultimate goal is to be able to perform the trick reliably - either on stage or in the gym. Each level must be considered in turn for each level has different obstacles associated with them. For example, the macro level - working on a trick for months - demands consistency foremost. One must work on the trick at a constant rate. Many tricks DEMAND daily practice. This goes hand in hand with a quiet, little bit each day's schedule. Yet at the micro level, each individual attempt must be focused, requiring a surge of concentration and energy. These differing levels provide a dichotomy that must be realized in any effective practice schedule.

I have discovered that for most jugglers, myself included, the practice schedule breaks down at the macro level. Once I am involved in a practice session and I am working on a given move, I am able to be focused on individual attempts. Unfortunately, my efforts are undermined when I skip practice for a couple of days (weeks? months?) and get on with my life.

There are more troubles at the lower levels. The learning process is defeated at each practice session. Typically my attention is not great enough to outlast my body. I get bored with an exercise long before my body decides it is time to quit. My concentration is the bottle neck that restricts my practice time. The ideal situation is when the muscles get tired, one moves on to another exercise. This new exercise emphasizes some other aspect of the trick by using different muscle groups. Drilling tricks this way is very beneficial but exceedingly boring.

It is at this point that the either/or hand question can be addressed.

I have always practiced tricks with either hand. If one hand is weak (my left) then I must devote additional attention to it, i.e. more reps. I emphasize my work this way for several reasons:

  1. If I allow myself the luxury of learning the trick well with my right hand and not the left, I usually don't have the discipline to learn it AS well with my left hand later.
  2. If the trick requires both hands simultaneously (i.e. even numbers) I am tempted to try runs before my weak hand is completely ready.
  3. Most often there is nothing to figure out about a trick. The trick simply requires practice. The majority of drills are for reinforcing established neuron paths as opposed to creating new ones.

    At a very practical level:
  4. Tension build-up causes fatigue in one hand. While it rests, I drill the other.
My choice of working both hands simultaneously is based on the psychological aspects of training as much as it is on the physical aspects. I have developed my practice regime based on my experiences dealing with my personality. Over my past ten years of juggling, I am finally getting to a point where I can realize the simple mindlessness required to be a truly efficient juggler. A little too late. At the age of 27 I have no realistic dreams of being able to develop my technical juggling skills much further. Any more it seems that my body suffers injury before I can get a handle on any of the really big technical tricks. At this point I have redirected my practice toward maintenance skills. Because of this, dropless shows are becoming more and more frequent. I, as do most of the net- computer-geeks, suffer from a debilitating combination of "short attention span" and "over analysis paralysis". (Although bad for juggling, I have always considered this to be a sign of excessive intelligence. I may be wrong...)

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